Kanye West’s ‘Donda’ Era, on a Chaotic Stage

For the last few years, Kanye West — perhaps tired of the insufficiency of the album, or music-making in general — has been seeking increasingly grand canvases for his various projects. There was the 2016 Yeezy Season 3 fashion show and album debut held at Madison Square Garden. His Imax film, “Jesus Is King,” filmed in James Turrell’s land art installation Roden Crater, in Arizona. A domed prototype for affordable housing built on his property in Calabasas, Calif. A vast expanse of ranch outside Cody, Wyo., annexed for work and play.

And now, for the rollout of his 10th album, “Donda,” stadiums — two listening sessions cum performance pieces in Atlanta starting in July, and a third last week in Chicago. New music may have been the raison d’être for these events, but it is not his sole goal, not anymore, not really.

Instead, these last few weeks have been album rollout as multimedia soap opera. The music itself has been in flux — the version of “Donda” played at each event has been different — and West’s refining of it in public, a method he introduced with “The Life of Pablo,” is his true artistic project now.

It is an ideal strategy for West, still among the most influential pop stars of the 21st century, an artist who is almost incalculably popular and yet almost wholly removed from the pop music mainstream. Gathering tens of thousands of people on short notice and engaging in a public conversation about what his music might sound like may be the purest expression of his fame now.

But crucially, big stages are easy places to hide. They are terrific distractions. And as West has cycled through periods of public tumult in recent years — his hospitalization, his assertion that slavery was a choice, his embrace of Donald Trump, his fitful 2020 run for president — he has simultaneously been orchestrating ever more complex creative projects while slowly removing himself from their emotional center.

That is a challenging place from which to launch “Donda” — named for West’s mother, who died in 2007 following a cosmetic surgery procedure — an urgent but sometimes center-less album that finds common ground between the scabrousness of “Yeezus” and the ethereality of his recent gospel turn. Given that it is an album dedicated to his mother’s memory, “Donda” is only intermittently emotional — more an achievement of texture and logistics than catharsis.

West remains capable of orchestrating impressive pop music. “Hurricane,” with sweet vocals from the Weeknd, is disarmingly pretty. “Junya” pulses with church organ and SoundCloud rap puckishness. “Believe What I Say,” which samples Lauryn Hill — one of the few times you hear a woman’s voice on this album — is among the most easeful songs West has made in a decade.

Several songs, including “No Child Left Behind,” “Jesus Lord” and “24,” sound like kin to the music West was making during his embrace of gospel. (He excised all cursing from this album, even bleeping out his guests.) But there are songs, like the recycled Pop Smoke collaboration “Tell the Vision” and the drowsy “Moon,” that feel purely decorative. As a Kanye West album, it feels more like a stabilization than an innovation.

Once a wordplay-obsessed, self-aware lyricist, West has shifted in the last decade to a more terse and immediate approach, one that complements his musical shifts toward the industrial and the spiritual. His late-period music makes a trade-off between complexity and directness. His songs pound and annihilate now. They’re corporeal studies of psychological hurt.

That approach went hand in hand with how West channeled his angst at last week’s Chicago listening event. He had a faithful re-creation of his childhood home built on a hilltop at the center of the stadium, then encircled it with rows of sentry dancers and black vehicles driving in concentric circles. This was a phalanx of protection, a way to consecrate and protect the place he was raised.

He also presented the home as a safe harbor. At the beginning of the show, he was almost immediately joined on the porch by Marilyn Manson and DaBaby — a Kanye’s Ark of the canceled and disbarred. Onstage, the guests looked bored, purposefully bored, above-reproach bored. (Manson is facing accusations of sexual abuse. DaBaby recently made homophobic statements during a festival performance.) West’s choice to include these widely derided figures exists somewhere between empathy for those who have been shunned for their misdeeds (suggesting that even those who have sinned are worthy of love) and aligning with the maligned for easy outrage.

If that is a coherent politics, it is animated by West’s longstanding sense of grievance that he is misunderstood, but it was ultimately a distraction from the album’s intended tribute. Also, even though the scale of the event was overwhelming, it was less elegant than earlier concert performances where he communed with his mother’s spirit.

This continues on the album itself, which is 27 tracks long, nearly two hours of music; it is sonically cohesive but also overlong and full of heavily assembled songs — multiple producers and writers, a bounty of male guests. West has long been shifting into conductor mode, and on several songs here, he is the ballast but not the focus.

Jay Electronica has a commanding verse on “Donda.” Fivio Foreign has a great verse on “Donda.” Lil Baby has a very good verse on “Donda.” Lil Durk has a striking verse on “Donda.” Sheek Louch, who sounds like he’s been mainlining Ka records, has an excellent verse on “Donda.” Jay-Z has a decent verse on “Donda.” Westside Gunn has a lovely verse on “Donda.”

West, though? Fewer than you’d think. The more you listen for West on “Donda,” the less you really hear him. The more fragmentary the lyrics are, the less satisfying they are.

But what keeps him from being a shadow presence on his own album is his ear for hooks, the way he can distill one quick phrase — be it a goof, a talking-to or an exultation — into something utterly sticky. “I know God breathed on this.” “He’s done miracles on me.” “Is to lay me or play me a bigger flex though?”

West has long wielded the voices of others to amplify his own — this has been true at least since the Hawaii sessions that birthed “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” one of his essential albums. As he’s become less of a full-time musician and more of a polymath who sometimes makes music, that tendency has grown, getting perhaps its purest expression just before the start of the pandemic, when the majority of his music-making came in the form of live performances of the Sunday Service Choir, a gospel troupe he assembled and directed but rarely contributed vocals to. At that point, it seemed as if West might be permanently decentering himself, or at least using his success primarily as a launching platform for others.

The “Donda” era realigns things, more in keeping with how West released “The Life of Pablo” and “Ye,” his last pre-gospel albums. There are, at the moment, at least four versions of “Donda” — the official one released on streaming services (though there’s no guarantee that one’s not in flux), and the ones West played at each of his listening events.

Instead of focusing on “Donda” as an album, or a playlist version of an album, it’s helpful to think of it more like theater, an iterative affair that evolves a little each time you encounter it. In the last few weeks, it has gone from regional company to Off Broadway to the Great White Way — each stop on that journey matters.

Typically, musicians keep listeners walled off from their process (at least until the 50th anniversary boxed set), but West has been contending that the assembly is part of the art. Not sure which version of a song is better? Include both, as West does with four different titles here. Not sure if your album is complete? Play it for fans and get feedback in real time. (Online chatter suggested he was paying attention to fan reactions to help shape what he would tweak or adjust.)

And why not monetize the uncertainty? West thrives in an attention economy, and with these live events, has found a way to make this interstitial period revenue-generating and curiosity-piquing.

This structurelessness allows “Donda” to function not simply as an album but also a marker of time. The day after the Lox dominated Dipset at Verzuz, they took a private jet to Atlanta, where they laid down verses that became part of “Jesus Lord Pt 2.” The two versions of “Jail” on the album capture the surprise rapprochement between West and his old friend and mentor Jay-Z, as captured in the second “Donda” listening, and also the head-scratcher of the third session, when fans heard a version of that song which scrapped Jay-Z in favor of DaBaby. Both takes survive here.

If little else, the “Donda” rollout has served as a demonstration that West can take scrambled eggs and, with a few weeks’ effort, make them something like whole. And, perhaps something of a surprise given the ire he inspires in some circles, he can still corral chart-topping levels of attention. “Donda” is expected to have one of the biggest opening weeks of the year.

That is a big victory for spectacle. And yet the most striking jolt on “Donda” — indeed, in this whole rollout cycle — comes in an exceedingly rare moment of intimacy, when West raps about his disintegrating marriage on “Lord I Need You.” Despite how intensely you can hear West throughout “Donda,” you almost never really see him; this is one of those moments, though.

“Too many complaints made it hard for me to think/Would you shut up? I can’t hear myself drink,” he raps, with patience and regret and a tinge of the absurd twists he favors in his lyrics whenever they threaten to get too serious. But when he raps “God got us, baby/God got the children,” it’s hard to hear something other than bare exhaustion and sadness — it’s pure surrender. “Donda” is a huge stage, but this is the only moment West stands at its center, undisturbed, raw.

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